WATCH: How an Oahu teacher builds community bridges through her school
Editor’s note: This article is published in collaboration with The 74th, a national nonprofit educational news site. It is one in a series of articles produced under the auspices of the Aspen Institute Weave: The Social Fabric Projectwhich highlights educators, mentors and local leaders who see community as key to student success. View all profiles.
Heidi Maxie may be a math teacher, but she sees and treats her primary role as much more than that. Before the first spiral notebooks hit in the morning, Maxie starts her day by making sure the students at James B. Castle High School in Hawaii – and she knows every single one of them – that’s fine.
Maxie is “a guardian and protector” of the students and community, said Tiffany Chitwood, Maxie’s cousin and school donor.
We traveled to Kaneohe, a 12-mile drive northeast of Honolulu through lush mountain roads, to experience Maxie’s community up close.
Located on the windward side of Oahu, the area Kaneohe occupies was a crater millions of years ago that filled with volcanic lava and debris that tumbled into the sea in a massive landslide. Now James B. Castle High School is nestled in the valleys stretching into the Pacific Ocean, formed against a backdrop of towering cliffs and mountain ridges with dense tropical forests.
Maxie is as authentic as her country.
It is clear that her students, their families and their neighbors feel seen and valued by her. Walking her around the Oahu campus for a week last winter, we quickly learned that her lessons are built around a marathon of check-ins and interactions with students, teachers, and the community members that sometimes show up just to Saying aloha or dropping from fruits harvested in their backyards.
“That’s what we do in Hawaii,” said Teresann Tau’a, director of the Academy of Innovation at Castle High School. One day an aunt brings all the ripe starfruit from her tree to share, the next day someone else brings ripe guavas from her garden in return.
So it’s easy to see how Maxie’s life is defined by the bridges she has built not only on the school corridors, but also between the student body and the wider community.
“Hello nice people!” she announces as she strolls into a classroom. “Hello Ms. Maxie!” the chorus replies brightly and affectionately. You’re happy to see her – and many of you have things you’ve been waiting to share with her.
She not only greets the students at James B. Castle, she asks them: “How are you? Are you okay?” Some children respond with a perfunctory “Fine.” However, some stop and talk to her about their lives. They trust her and know that she cares about them – and listens.
Through all of these check-ins with students, Maxie was able to identify the root causes of what may appear to many to be surface issues. On a recent occasion, Maxie noticed that some students in her class were sleeping. “Before you go from zero to crazy, find out what’s going on,” she said. “Maybe they didn’t eat.”
She discovered that food insecurity affects many of the school’s students. So she took action and set up an angel fund to enable students in need to buy lunch – discreetly. She then called on the community to donate and help increase the fund. As more food became available at school, Maxie said sleeping stopped, grades improved, and in at least one case, a student who dropped out of class graduated on time.
As Maxie walked the open-air hallways during class time, she noticed a student lying on a picnic table in the yard, head bowed. He should have been in class, but Maxie didn’t ask him about it. He’s usually a good boy and he knows he’s playing.
“Are you alright?” She asked.
“Yes, Ms. Maxie,” he replied, laying his head back on the table.
Things are tough on him at home at the moment, Maxie knew, and bothering him about skipping class at the moment would only make things worse. Again, “before she went haywire,” she would simply check in with him later – to guide and support rather than scold and discipline.
Maxie’s connection with students allows her to think outside the box and create unconventional support at the school. She noted that students were constantly being sent to the principal’s office for dress code violations, especially when repeated violations are out of character with the student. Speaking to the teenagers, Maxie learned that it wasn’t about disrespect, it was a lack of access to appropriate clothing.
One student, for example, was subpoenaed for dress code violations because her clothes didn’t fit — because they weren’t hers. She was staying with a friend for several weeks due to an unstable situation at home – but her departure was so abrupt that she didn’t have her own clothes with her and had borrowed from her friend’s family.
Maxie stepped in, creating a school-wide clothing rack for these students and once again inspiring community donations — including installing an on-site washer and dryer for students who need not just clothes but clean ones.
The public jumps in when Maxie asks because she’s also stepping into the community to support her. For example, once a week, Maxie does the grocery shopping for Aunt Jackie, her 90-something neighbor who has powdered donut holes for breakfast every day.
During our most recent visit, Maxie even went twice in one week when the donuts ran out early, trying unsuccessfully to find powdered substitutes at three different markets. Worried, Maxie went to break the news to Aunt Jackie, promising to try again the next day, but Aunt Jackie didn’t mind – she was just thrilled to see Maxie and touched by her effort.
This closes Maxie’s role in Kaneohe and at Castle High School. The school is a community center of sorts, and the city comes together on and off campus. Knowing what their students need and using the power of community to fix it helps teenagers focus on what matters most to growing both as students in school and as members of society outside to develop the school.
“If you have someone who needs something, it’s like, ‘One ohana,’ ‘One family,'” Chitwood said. “So do what you can to help and improve your community.”
Check out our full documentation for an eye-opening visit to James B. Castle High School and the opportunity to meet an inspirational community leader in Maxie who has weaved a tapestry of community and compassion in both her school and town.
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